Female journalist stereotypes in movies and television feed a ‘vicious cycle’ of sexism

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Portrayals of female journalists in movies and TV are fueling a vicious cycle of sexism, according to researchers from the University of Florida. Study authors say whenever a journalist who just happens to be a woman appears on screen, it usually doesn’t take too long for her to sleep with one of her sources. Examples include characters portrayed in numerous recent films such as “Thank You for Smoking,” “Trainwreck,” and “Top Five.” There’s no shortage of recent television shows matching that description either, ranging from “Sharp Objects,” to “Gilmore Girls” in 2016, and “House of Cards.”

Understandably, such sexualized depictions of women reporters in works of fiction can upset the real-life women who have dedicated their lives to actual journalism.

“In the past 20 to 30 years, Hollywood has really latched on to this. It’s incredibly consistent,” comments study author Frank Waddell, Ph.D., in a university release.

Making matters worse, threats against female journalists have also increased lately. One survey put together by UNESCO consisting of 901 female journalists from 125 countries discovered 73 percent have experienced online harassment. Another survey of women and gender non-conforming journalists in the United States and Canada reports 70 percent have received threats and 85 percent feel they’ve become less safe over the past five years.

Bias against journalists is a wide-ranging problem

Prof. Waddell set out to determine which viewers or demographics are most likely to actually believe such outlandish, hyper-sexualized depictions of female journalists are realistic. Surprisingly, he uncovered no differences between men or women, nor between liberals and conservatives, indicating low levels of trust in the mainstream media.

However, people who already held stereotypical or sexist views toward women were most likely to believe such sexualized portrayals of female journalists were accurate. Study authors say when these individuals see more and more movies with sexualized depictions of women in journalism, it strengthens those beliefs and creates a vicious cycle of sexism. Researchers hope that identifying who actually believes in these inaccuracies will be the first step toward cutting it out of popular culture for good.

“This is a very specific slice of the pie, but it’s in the context of a larger conversation about declining trust in media overall,” Prof. Waddell notes.

Hollywood holds the monopoly on stereotypes in journalism

Originally, researchers wanted to compare both positive and negative depictions of female journalists in the media. There was only one problem: Waddell couldn’t find any movies or TV shows with a positive portrayal of female journalists.

“I was actually struggling so badly to find positive examples that I couldn’t do that part of the study,” he explains.

The vast majority of people go their entire lives without interacting with a reporter, so Hollywood’s depictions of journalists tends to hold more weight than other occupations. Consequently, researchers recommend that communities and organizations do more to connect real reporters with real people. This may be possible through town hall events, social media outreach, and more efforts to “pull back the curtain” on what happens in newsrooms across the country.

“I’m also hoping that Hollywood can do a better job finding ways to dramatize the practice of journalism,” Prof. Waddell concludes. “People are treating women in the newsroom differently because they fail to recognize what they’re seeing has nothing to do with real life.”

The study is published in Journalism Studies.

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